A New Essay in ‘The Baker Street Journal’

I had the opportunity to write about two of my favorite literary subjects—Sherlock Holmes and Arthur Machen—for The Baker Street Journal. Founded in 1946 by Edgar W. Smith, the BSJ is the preeminent journal of Sherlockian scholarship.

My essay, “A Crime Scene in ‘The Resident Patient’ and The Three Imposters” looks at the influence of Conan Doyle on Machen. It appears in the Autumn 2018 issue on newsstands now.

Subscribe to The Baker Street Journal here.

Tsarist Russia on Film

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With a run-time of only seven minutes Moscow Clad in Snow offers a tantalizing glimpse of Russia in the halcyon days before the 1917 revolution. Filmed by Joseph-Louis Mundwiller for Pathé Frères in 1909 the film presents candid scenes of everyday life in Moscow. It is similar in structure to the London documentaries produced by Robert W. Paul in the previous decade.

Fritzi Kramer has written a shot-by-shot description of the film at Movies Silently that is worth reading. For me the highlight is an extended look at pedestrian and sleigh traffic on an unnamed street (from roughly 2:47 to 3:42). Here we see a city of charming Edwardian modernity similar in architecture and energy to the better parts of New York at the time. The sleighs and snowfall add a touch of fairytale ambience.

Anyone nostalgic for the Belle Époque will find this film bittersweet.

See also: Tsarist-Futurist Visions of Tomorrow.

A Lost Portrait of Dickens Rediscovered

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Portrait of Charles John Huffman Dickens (1812-1870), wearing dark jacket and cravat, white waistcoat, his dark hair worn collar-length in long curls, by Margaret Gillies RWS, 1843; Photo: Philip Mould & Company

An 1843 portrait of Charles Dickens was rediscovered in South Africa after being lost for 174 years. At a market in Pietermaritzburg last year, “[a] man paid the equivalent of £27 for a cardboard tray containing a metal lobster, an old recorder, a brass plate and a small painting which was so covered with mould that the face could barely be made out,” writes Mark Brown in The Guardian.

The painting has been identified as a portrait of Dickens by Margaret Gillies, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1844. Gillies painted the novelist during the very weeks when he first began writing A Christmas Carol. The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote that it depicted “the dust and mud of humanity about him, notwithstanding those eagle eyes.” Gillies had lost track of the painting by 1860. It seems to have been in the possession of a brother-in-law of her adopted daughter when he emigrated to South Africa in the 1860s.

The portrait is being unveiled today in London at The Dickens Museum where it will hopefully become part of the permanent collection. The museum is trying to raise funds to purchase it from the London art dealers Philip Mould and Company for £180,000. To support this effort, donate here.

Building Better, Building Beautiful

The UK government has announced a “commission to champion beautiful buildings as an integral part of the drive to build the homes communities need,” according to a press release today. This can only be taken as good news for advocates of traditional architecture.

The commission “will develop a vision and practical measures to help ensure new developments meet the needs and expectations of communities, making them more likely to be welcomed rather than resisted.”

The ‘Building Better, Building Beautiful’ Commission has a mandate:

l. To promote better design and style of homes, villages, towns and high streets, to reflect what communities want, building on the knowledge and tradition of what they know works for their area.

2. To explore how new settlements can be developed with greater community consent.

3. To make the planning system work in support of better design and style, not against it.

Perhaps most exiting is the news that Sir Roger Scruton has been appointed chairman of the commission. Sir Roger is a great advocate of classical and vernacular design. As Rev Marcus Walker writes on Twitter: “The government is finally doing something actually Conservative: appointing Sir Roger Scruton to chair a commission into the Built Environment.”

Frankenstein at 200

Portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, by Richard Rothwell, 1840

The definitive exhibition on the Byron-Shelley circle was hosted by the New York Public Library in 2012. Shelley’s Ghost brought together materials from the Bodleian and the NYPL’s own Pforzheimer Collection, including the manuscript of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Byron’s love letters, a necklace made from Percy Shelley’s hair, the water-damaged copy of Sophocles’s Tragedies that had been on his person when he drowned, as well as fragments of his skull taken from the funeral pyre, among other artifacts.

A new exhibition at the Morgan Library celebrates the bicentennial of FrankensteinIt’s Alive! Frankenstein at 200 collects many of the same items as Shelley’s Ghost. It is a much bigger exhibition with a narrower scope, focusing on the inspiration, creation, and legacy of the classic novel, which was published in 1818. In it’s own way Frankenstein at 200 is the equal of Shelley’s Ghost.

Pages from the manuscript are on display, loaned by the Bodleian. The curators provide a cultural context with eighteenth century galvanic equipment and surgical tools, a number of important Gothic paintings, including Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare (1781) and Philip James de Loutherbourg’s Visitor to a Moonlit Churchyard (1790). The lives of the Shelleys are presented through letters and portraits, including the well-known Richard Rothwell painting of Mary, on loan from the National Portrait Gallery in London. The aforementioned fragments of Percy’s skull (calvariae disjecta?) are present, as is the manuscript of a love poem he was carrying when he drown, the ink washed to a blur. (I have written about the extraordinary circumstances surrounding Shelley’s death in an earlier post.)

All of these items are on display in a single gallery, which is worth the price of admission alone. A light but cheerful second gallery contains a collection of advertising posters from the various film adaptations of the novel, and modern illustrations, including those by Lynd Ward and Bernie Wrightson. The highlight of this gallery is an original six-sheet poster for the 1931 film starring Boris Karloff.

A page from the manuscript of Frankenstein
The Nightmare, by Henry Fuseli, 1781
Visitor to a Moonlit Churchyard, Philip James de Loutherbourg, 1790
Fragments of the skull of Percy Bysshe Shelley
Manuscript of a poem retrieved from the body of Percy Bysshe Shelley

It’s Alive! Frankenstein at 200 runs through January 27, 2019 at the Morgan Library in New York.

Symphonie Fantastique

Simon Callow with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique

Last week we attended a terrific production of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique at Carnegie Hall. It is a dramatic and delirious piece—an opium dream of murder and witchcraft punctuated by incredible orchestral “special effects”—most famously the fall of a guillotine.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner led the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique in a recreation of the 1832 Paris production where the Symphonie was accompanied by its rarely heard companion piece, Lélio. This is a direct sequel in which the protagonist awakens from an overdose of opium and rises out of despair by contemplating the healing power of art. In the process he conjures a series of musical reveries performed by the orchestra, soloists, and a full choir (in this case the National Youth Choir of Scotland).

While the Symphonie is a purely orchestral work, Lélio is a piece of theater. It requires an actor to play the part of the protagonist—representing Berlioz himself—who interacts with the musicians. Simon Callow played the part in this production, to my delight. Callow is one of two actors I would go out of my way to see in anything. (David Suchet is the other.)

The entire concert was electrifying—really triumphant. I felt a genuine frisson. I think everyone in the audience sensed that something special was happening on stage. I would say it was like nothing I have ever heard, but it might actually have been something I have never heard. Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim writes in The New York Times:

The Orchestre Révolutionnaire, which Mr. Gardiner founded in 1989, plays on period instruments that produce earthier tone colors than their modern equivalents. Some have since gone extinct, like the serpent and the ophicleide, precursors of the tuba that look like plumbing designed by Dalí.

Since Berlioz’s time, wind instruments in particular have developed so that their sound more perfectly resembles the human voice. But in this earlier stage, a quality of thingness still inhabits the sound of clarinets and oboes. Their solos came across as the voices of animated objects in a way that marvelously suited Berlioz’s macabre vision.

A different program of Berlioz pieces, performed by the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, can be heard here.

Autumn in Washington Irving Country

We recently moved out of New York City to leafier climes in the Hudson Valley. This is my favorite part of the world. I have roots here. My mother grew up in the town where we settled. My grandparents were ceramic artists and figures of some importance in Midcentury Modern design. They had their studio and factory here. I went to school about an hour north. My wife and I are expecting our third child now. I am grateful for this to be their home.

Fall is in the air. Cold weather seems to have followed me back from England. There is a fire blazing in the hearth. This is the finest season in New York: comfortable, nostalgic, melancholy, beautiful.

Washington Irving, our greatest writer, sets the scene:

It was, as I have said, a fine autumnal day; the sky was clear and serene, and nature wore that rich and golden livery which we always associate with the idea of abundance. The forests had put on their sober brown and yellow, while some trees of the tenderer kind had been nipped by the frosts into brilliant dyes of orange, purple, and scarlet…As Ichabod jogged slowly on his way, his eye…ranged with delight over the treasures of jolly autumn.